by Gareth Morley
When times are uncertain, some of us turn to “big think” books, books that draw a broad canvas over the social and natural sciences and speculate boldly about patterns of human history. And with the Bush administration at odds with every other Western government over the seriousness of our environmental problems, we look to the interdisciplinary thinkers who can explain these issues for us. No one is better qualified to do this than the biogeographer, avian zoologist and popular science writer Jared Diamond.
Diamond does not shy away from big issues or controversial ideas. His first popular book, The Third Chimpanzee, ranged brilliantly over the controversial field of evolutionary psychology. His Pulitzer Prize–winning Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) explained modern Europe’s dominance over the rest of the world as a function of its prehistoric geographical advantages for the domestication of plants and animals, the diffusion of technology and resistance to disease. Collapse shares its predecessors’ big ambitions. Diamond asks how and why societies exhaust their environment’s ability to sustain them, and ranges over ancient and modern societies in search of an answer.
As a theme, the threat of environmental degradation and exhausted resources is a familiar one: indeed, it is both so familiar and so technical that it is difficult to write interestingly about it. Warnings about imminent ecological destruction from increased population and consumption have blunted their impact through repetition. Edifying discourses about how we should lessen our impact on nature easily provoke sage nodding, but not action or real engagement. More nuanced discussions of specific environmental problems tend to be technical. Whatever their scientific merits, the “Cornucopians” who argue that markets and technology can solve environmental problems – writers such as Julian Simon (The Ultimate Resource) or Bjørn Lomborg (The Skeptical Environmentalist) – have the rhetorical advantage of sounding contrarian and provocative rather than pious.